Blair and Powell clash over Iraqi veto on Allied forces

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Tony Blair called yesterday for a "real and genuine" transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government as he put pressure on the Bush administration to allow the Iraqis a veto over the allies' military operations.

Tony Blair called yesterday for a "real and genuine" transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government as he put pressure on the Bush administration to allow the Iraqis a veto over the allies' military operations.

His comments appeared to open up an immediate ­ and rare ­ public disagreement with America as Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, insisted that its forces will remain under American control. Asked if the new government could veto a US operation, General Powell told a news conference with the Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel: "Obviously, we would take into account whatever they might say at a political and military level.

"Ultimately, however, if it comes down to the United States armed forces protecting themselves or in some way accomplishing their mission in a way that might not be in total consonance with what the Iraqi interim government might want to do at a particular moment in time, US forces remain under US command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves."

His words contrasted with remarks made earlier by the Prime Minister at his monthly Downing Street press conference. Mr Blair said the new Iraqi government, due to assume control at the end of next month, would have the right to approve or reject action by allied forces such as the controversial American assault on Fallujah. In a rare departure from Washington's approach, Mr Blair appeared to go further than President George Bush's speech on Monday as he tried to assure Iraqis and his critics in Britain that real power would be handed to the Iraqis on 30 June. Later his spokeswoman insisted that he was speaking only about British troops.

Mr Blair said: "If there's a political decision as to whether you go into a place like Fallujah in a particular way, that has to be done with the consent of the Iraqi government and the final political control remains with the Iraqi government. That's what the transfer of sovereignty means."

There was confusion over how long coalition forces would remain in Iraq. British ministers believe they will stay for at least another two years but Ali Alawi, the Iraqi Defence Minister, who met Mr Blair yesterday, said: "It is a question of months rather than years. It would be very unusual [for the Iraqis] not to be able to install security during the next year."

Mr Blair said coalition forces would stay until the job was done. "The transfer of sovereignty has to be real and genuine and the issue of our troops remaining after then is an issue of necessity because they have to remain until the Iraqi capability is sufficiently developed," he said. "The people who decide whether the troops stay or not will be the Iraqi government."

The Prime Minister warned that security problems in Iraq could get worse before they get better. He said: "There will be a lot of difficulties along the way because these people who are trying to stop us rebuilding Iraq and trying to stop ordinary Iraqis rebuilding Iraq are very determined to do it."

Al-Qa'ida knew that "if we succeed in Iraq, they fail ... They know perfectly well what will happen if Iraq gets on its feet. How can they turn round to
the whole of the world and say, 'Look at wretched, wicked Americans and what they are trying to do, it is all a battle against Islam'?"

Mr Blair confirmed that allied troops would have immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts after the handover of sovereignty. He said this was normal practice and British troops would not be immune from disciplinary procedures.

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